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THE IMMIGRANT RETURNS
By Michael Najjar
The Book of Khalid
By Ameen Rihani
Illustrated by Kahlil Gibran
Afterword by Todd Fine
Melville House Publishing, 2012
Ameen Faris Rihani returned to his home in Freike, Lebanon (then Syria) in 1905 after his second journey to America. By that time, the so-called “Philosopher of Freike” had worked in his family’s business, joined several literary societies in New York, contributed regularly to Arabic newspapers, and toured with a Shakespearean theatre company. He completed his novel "TheBook of Khalid" in 1910 and subsequently published by Dodd, Mead and Company a year later. In 2011, for the book’s centennial anniversary, scholar and researcher Todd Fine created “Project Khalid” — a commemoration of the novel that included publishing an e-book, a symposium at The Library of Congress, and a paperback publication of the work with a new afterword by Fine.
Rihani’s influence as an Arab-American writer cannot be underestimated. He wrote the first Arab-American novel ("The Book of Khalid"), the first Arab-American play (Wajdah), and helped found the Pen League (which included writers Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy). "The Book of Khalid" has now been republished by Melville House Publishers with the original illustrations by Kahlil Gibran included. This republication, and the events surrounding the book, is yet another example of the contemporary Arab-American literary movement gaining momentum after years of indifference by both publishers and academics.
The novel chronicles the life of two young Syrian immigrants as they cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island, struggle as peddlers on the streets of New York City, and delve into the political intrigues of Tammany Hall (landing one of them in jail). Had the story ended at that point, it might be considered a classic American immigrant tale in the tradition of Nabokov, Roth, or Sinclair. However, Rihani follows his protagonist Khalid back to Beirut, Damascus, and finally, Cairo where he finally settles and earns the name “the apostle of Buhaism.” This altered immigrant narrative along with Rihani’s contentious political views complicate the novel’s reception, making it difficult to categorize and less accessible for American readers.
Rihani’s desire to behold a “World-Temple” between the spiritual Orient and the materialist Occident is the central focus of the novel. Khalid is an insatiable seeker of knowledge and wisdom, but eschews “the Sacred Books of the World” for a deeper spirituality. In the process, Khalid is excommunicated from the Maronite Church; driven from a mosque for admonishing Islam for its “stupefying traditions, its enslaving superstitions, its imbruting cants”; and claims the superiority of the “Semite Syrian” over the “Semite Jew.” Khalid’s “reformation by emigration” offends nearly everyone he encounters, save one American woman who loves him (Rihani himself married the American artist Bertha Case). Fine urges readers not to condemn Rihani’s views based on contemporary political divisions between Arabs and Jews, but he should also caution readers to consider Rihani’s condemnation of Islam within similar historical circumstances.
The “found book” structure of the novel, its poetic interjections, and its convoluted writing style make its reading both fascinating and frustrating. Rihani utilizes words like “dereligionise”, “sororiation”, and “everywhither” in conjunction with pseudo-Shakespearean parlance and transliterated Arabic. Unfortunately, with so little commentary to explain many of the Anglicized words and Arab locales, understanding the novel could prove difficult for those without a passing knowledge of Arabic or Middle Eastern geography. The editor would have better served the project by including more footnotes to assist readers.
Despite Rihani’s proclamations of “Arabia’s Spring,” “a great Arab Empire in the border-land of the Orient and Occident,” and “the resuscitation of the glory of Islam,” it is clear that Khalid is more interested in his own transcendental journey than any great pan-Arab movement. Along with Gibran’s "The Prophet" and Naimy’s "The Book of Mirdad," Rihani’s novel offers a more complicated view of early Arab-American literature — one that refuses the traditional booksellers’ “spirituality” or “inspiration” classification of this genre. Rihani’s inconclusive ending to "The Book of Khalid" includes a nod to Shakespeare where Rihani asks readers to “judge us not severely.” It will be interesting to observe how a new generation will interpret Rihani’s ideals a century later, given the religious and political upheavals since its first publication.